New paths at Next Wave: 'Democracy' stumbles; 'Desert' soars

I like new directions, and I'm always glad when an artist ventures down a risky new path. If the path hits a dead end, or turns back on itself, at least we had the adventure of trying it out.

What doesn't please me is pale, stale material that poses as fresh and bold by wearing a faddish label like ''performance art.'' Such a work is ''Democracy in America,'' conceived and directed by Tim Miller and seen recently in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's vaunted ''Next Wave'' series. (Future performances will take place Nov. 8 at the Japan America Theater in Los Angeles; Nov. 10 at La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, Calif.; and Nov. 14-17 at the New Performance Gallery in San Francisco.)

The show opens with people bustling about the stage and reading aloud from newspapers - a false image of the United States from the start, picturing an involvement and unanimity (it's the same newspaper for everyone) that rarely exist outside old Frank Capra movies. Simplistic ideas continue to run through the monologues, skits, tableaux, and musical numbers that follow.

True, some are wanly attractive in their wide-eyed wonder at how intricate the American way of life is. Few are memorable, though. Miller's idea of probing a concept is to put a performer in a costume and choreograph a little movement, then give a talk on how interesting it is. His idea of a climax is to have several things going on at once, which gives amplification without clarification. Call this ''performance art'' if you will, but it often smacks of a grade-school pageant.

After an hour or so the show concludes that American democracy is ''complicated'' and ''confusing,'' so we should all concentrate our attention on something we really like - ''your job, your dad ... your pet ... or something.'' The ''me generation'' strikes again!

Other recent signs of the ''Next Wave'' have been more encouraging. Miller was preceded at BAM by choreographer Remy Charlip and his full-length work ''Ten Men,'' danced by a company of (you guessed it) ten men plus the highly respected Lucas Hoving and Charlip himself. While it's not an exciting work, the choreography is quietly inventive within the bounds of a leisurely meter and reserved visual scheme; and there are moments of sly charm in Hoving's autobiographical solo, ''Growing Up in Public,'' which combines modest dancing with spoken reminiscences. It was also fun for the audience to sit on the rear of the stage, facing an empty auditorium behind the performers.

But it was a new work by composer Steve Reich that made BAM wake up and cheer after some surprisingly downbeat weeks. ''The Desert Music,'' written for a huge orchestra and chorus, combines verse by William Carlos Williams with Reich's pulsing, repetitive style. The rhythms are irrepressible, the harmonies are direct and pure, the textures range from earthy to ethereal.

Despite a few clockworky and overly literal moments, the 50-minute piece (with Reich's clever Clapping Music and Octet as appetizers) had the crowd on its feet in a standing ovation - spiced with a few hearty boos, in case you thought ''minimalism'' wasn't still good for a controversy. Next year ''The Desert Music'' will be released as a Nonesuch record, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting as he did at BAM, and it will be performed in London and Paris. The ensemble Steve Reich and Musicians will next be heard in New York on Dec. 12 at the Museum of Modern Art.

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